Edith & Oliver - Michèle Forbes

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Edith & Oliver - Michèle Forbes ****

Michèle Forbes debut novel Ghost Moth was a intriguing work that had its own unique setting and character, dealing with family bonds in Belfast in the post-war years, with a side look at art and entertainment. What made the work even more exceptional was the ability of the author to find some poetic resonance that was able to touch on the more abstract and intangible ideas and sentiments. It's wonderful then to see the author's second novel Edith & Oliver is even more ambitious in its historical period detail and character study of the individuals within a family unit, and the writing even more impressive in how it probes even more deeply into some very dark corners of the mind.

What is interesting about the characters of Oliver Fleck and Edith Foster - initially at least - is that they are both in the entertainment industry; Oliver and illusionist, Edith an accompanist on the piano. Both are from Northern Ireland, but the nature of their career means that they are constantly on tour around Ireland and the rest of the UK. What is even more ambitious on the part of the author is that the two of them are working in a period goes back even further than the 1949-69 period of Ghost Moth, to the first half of the twentieth century. That takes in the Great War of course, but it also takes in the very specific political and social problems and that happen in Ireland at this time.

Mostly however, while they are certainly significant historical events that affect the lives of many in Northern Ireland, these take more of a background role to the rather more everyday concerns of Edith and Oliver. After an inauspicious first encounter at a party where Oliver at least has no recollection the morning after, the two of them marry and have two children, twins Archie and Agna in 1907. Oliver continues to tour while Edith looks after the babies in Huddersfield, but the fortunes of the travelling entertainer are variable and the lifestyle and frustrated ambitions eventually takes its toll on Oliver, and by extension on the rest of the family by the time they move back to live in Belfast.

Like Michèle Forbes's first novel, its the family connections that drive the narrative and the characterisation Edith & Oliver. Oliver in particular has had a difficult childhood and a strict upbringing, but perhaps not unusually so for this time. It's a terrible family tragedy however that opens up the cracks in the family unit and exposes personality weaknesses that mark his life thereafter and are perhaps a determining factor in how he in turn responds to his own wife and children.

There's inevitably a bitterness that darkens the tone of the novel as the decades pass. The period covers the war years, the partition of Ireland, the subsequent Civil War and all the sectarian issues that rise to the surface, but although these issues appear mostly as a backdrop to the family drama. they do create what Oliver sees as "a bloodthirsty new generation" and contribute to the tone of desperation, disappointment, and despair that deepens with Oliver's gradual decline. Illusions give way to disillusionment. That could be very bleak indeed, but Forbes's writing transcends any sense of misery and instead somehow manages to transform it into a dark energy that makes the book compelling reading.

The "somehow" of Forbes's craft is harder to define, but the imagery and use of language in Edith & Oliver is strong. There's less poetic abstraction than some of the writing in Ghost Moth, more direct here and more in line with the tone, the characters and the period. Forbes is most successful in how she embodies the transformation of dark energies - much like in Ghost Moth - it's embodied in the blooming of the younger generation. Agna, the daughter of Edith and Oliver, is the observing, absorbing silent presence here, filtering all the darkness and transforming it into something more uplifting. It's an extraordinary ability and brilliantly employed here by the author, and it gives the work a deeper and more meaningful character.

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Edith & Oliver is published by W&N on 27th March 2017

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